In my post last week called, “Fundamentals Every Day,” I talked about the importance of coaches making sure that their athletes are working on fundamental skill development every day. This week I’m going to continue with that topic and dive deeper into it.

To review my point in last week’s post, I said that we need to devote time to fundamental skill development every week with our teams and preferably every day. All too often, coaches gloss over these important skill development times in practice, especially as a season goes on.

Some coaches don’t even do much in the way of fundamental skill development at all, believing that since they have taught those skills in the past, the players already know how to do them.

This is a huge mistake. Slippage occurs from year-to-year, month-to-month, week-to-week, and day-to-day.

While there is no cut-and-dried rule that says how often and how much time you have to devote to fundamental skills every week, skill development has to be consistently incorporated into your training regimens for you to develop the skills of your players and teams to perform and succeed at a high level.

However, even before determining how often you will work on them, you must also determine what you will work on and how you will teach it and work on it.

Choose drills and small-sided games that will help develop the specific skills that your players need for success. Start with the most basic skills necessary for proper performance of your sport.

Teach & Correct

Once you know what skills you want to work on, determine how you will teach them.

Break the moves or skills down into steps, so that players can move from one element of the skill to the next in a progression that makes it easier to master. While you are teaching it, demonstrate (or have a player demonstrate) the proper way to perform it.

Once you have taught the skill correctly, allow players to work on the skill by giving them opportunities for numerous repetitions at performing it.

Watch them closely. If there is any part of the skill or drill that they are doing incorrectly, stop them, correct them, and give them another opportunity to perform it. Once they perform it correctly, reward them with verbal praise and move on to the next player.

Continue to watch all of the players performing the skill throughout the time you work on it. Any time they struggle to perform it correctly, correct them. Any time they perform it correctly, reward them with verbal praise and make the praise loud enough for teammates to hear. This gives the players confidence to perform it correctly, and it makes the other players want to receive praise for doing it right, too.

This process takes time. Do not shortcut the time necessary for their improvement and growth. They need this to get confident in performing the skill you are teaching them.

Soon, you will be having them try to perform the skill in a competitive environment, often against an opposing player or team. If they don’t have the confidence necessary to perform the skill without someone defending them, they are going to struggle against a defense, and their confidence levels will plummet.

All Year Long

This type of teaching, correcting, and reinforcing of skill development must be done throughout your time with them. There is never a time where you can say, “All right, we’re good. We don’t need to work on that anymore.”

Of course, depending on the level at which you coach, you will not have to work on some of the more basic skills nearly as much as other things you need to work on. And when you do work on them, a lot of the time it is just a quick reminder of how to do those skills, or it’s a warm-up that uses those skills to make sure they are still proficient at them.

But don’t fall into the trap of believing that once they have shown proficiency at it, they don’t need to continue to work on it and refine it.

Former basketball skills trainer and now corporate speaker and trainer, Alan Stein, Jr., tells a great story of the time he was invited to work as a counselor at the Kobe Bryant Skills Academy for high school and college basketball players. Stein asked Kobe if he could watch one of Kobe’s legendary individual skills workouts, and Kobe said, “Sure.”

Stein was amazed at what he saw.

For much of the time Kobe worked out, he did basic footwork, ball handling, and shooting drills that Stein himself had used when training middle school and high school players.

Afterwards, Stein said to him, “You’re the greatest player in the world. Why do you do such basic drills?”

Kobe’s response was telling: “Why do you think I’m the greatest player in the world?”

He then added, “It’s because I never get bored with the basics.”

Do your players get bored with the basics?

Do you?

Do you and your players struggle with working on fundamental skills because you and they believe they have already learned and mastered them, so they don’t need them anymore?

Don’t fall into that trap!

Click here to be taken to Alan Stein Jr’s video talking about that moment with Kobe.

The Best Are the Best for a Reason

On a recent episode of the Beyond the X’s & O’s podcast, former New England Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe was talking with Trent Dilfer, the host of the show and a former NFL quarterback himself.

Bledsoe said that people often ask him why the Patriots are so successful year in and year out. He said that one of the things the Patriots do, somewhat surprisingly in the NFL, is that they coach technique from day one of OTAs (Organized Team Activities in the off-season) and then continue to do so throughout the entire season. They do this with everyone—rookies and veterans alike.

“They coach (technique) every single day,” Bledsoe said.

This is the greatest dynasty in the history of the NFL, and yet, they work on the most basic skills and techniques every day of the year.

Even more surprising is that Bledsoe and Dilfer both said that many coaches in the NFL don’t do this. They both said that many of the coaches they dealt with during their years in the NFL did not know how to coach technique.

This is the highest level of American football. Yet the coaches don’t know how to coach?

Or is it that they don’t want to take the time to learn how to coach?

Or take the time to coach players the most basic skills the right way?

Or maybe they themselves don’t know how to teach the skills the right way?

“What?” you may be thinking. “Come on, Scott. Those guys are in the NFL. They know how to teach skills.”

Think about who we’re talking about here. Many are former players who possessed incredible physical talents to play the game. They could get by using their natural abilities to out-talent other talented players.

If no one is teaching skills and techniques, none of them are learning those skills and techniques, so none of them are performing those skills and techniques. 

Now they are coaching the positions that they just played, but they don’t have the basic skills down well enough to turn around and teach them to others. Maybe they just don’t think those skills and techniques are important enough to devote time to. Because the players are talented enough to play at the highest level, these coaches may not think that they need to work on the fundamentals.

No matter the reason, not teaching and working on fundamental skills and techniques consistently is hurting teams at every level.

Teaching and working on fundamentals separates the great ones from everyone else.

The NFL is the highest level of American football, and the greatest team ever focuses on this important element of success every day of the year.

Most of you don’t coach in the NFL. You probably coach at a lower level than that, probably a much lower level.

There is absolutely no excuse for you to not be teaching, correcting, re-teaching, and developing your players’ fundamental skills and techniques every day if you truly want them and your teams to succeed.

Dealing with It Myself

I am dealing with this dynamic with my teams and with the teams I watch in my community.

I coach middle school girls’ basketball right now, and I coached the boys in the fall. We spend a good portion of the early part of the season teaching, correcting, re-teaching, and drilling the kids on their fundamental skills.

However, as the season goes on, we spend less time (sometimes a lot less time) on those fundamentals. There are plays to put in, defenses to prepare for, and game situations to work on.

I get it. It’s important to prepare for those things.

But when our kids struggle to perform the skills necessary for success against an opponent, ultimately, who cares what offense we run?

We need to focus more of our attention on how they perform than on what they perform.

It is the only way for them to develop to become the best they’re capable of becoming, so that our team can become the best we’re capable of becoming.

I see this same problem at the high school level in my community and in communities wherever I go.

Coaches focus so much time and attention on X’s & O’s, strategy, and game plans, that they don’t work on those fundamental skills necessary to make the X’s and O’s, strategy, and game plans work.

Yes, most of us have some players who can have success getting by on their talent alone.

Two things about that:

     1. Is that what you want your players to do—get by?

     2. What about all of the other players on your team? Don’t you want them to be prepared skills-wise to perform well? Don’t you want them to continue to grow and develop to become their best?

Not Enough Time to Devote to It

I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Yeah, but we just don’t have enough time to work on skills.”

Again, I totally get it. I have thought the same way throughout my career and often still think that way.

But then I watch our kids scrimmaging in practice and playing in games, and I realize that they are not prepared in terms of their individual skills for what they are doing and for the opponents they are facing.

The fact that I can put them in certain spots in an offense or defense and have them go to those spots at the right time means nothing if, once they are in those spots, they can’t perform the necessary skills to succeed.

I need to give them the tools to succeed in those spots, not just put them in those spots.

“But they should already know how to do that!”

I have heard this statement from coaches time and time again through the years.

Yes, you’re right. At the high school level (and to some degree the middle school level), kids should be proficient at a certain level of skill.

They need to put in time in the off-season—work on individual skills (with and without a trainer), go to camps, play pick-up games with friends, and play in tournaments/leagues with their teams.

Unfortunately, too often, kids don’t do those things. They don’t devote the time necessary to develop their skills.

At large schools or leagues, those players end up not making the team. That is on them. They should have done more to prepare for the competition they were going to face.

But that doesn’t mean that those of you who coach those teams don’t need to continue to work on fundamental skills and techniques every day.

If it’s good enough for the New England Patriots to do every day, it’s good enough for you to do every day.

For those of you who coach at smaller schools, it’s a bigger dilemma. Generally speaking, you can’t just cut kids, or you won’t have enough players to field a team.

Focus on What’s Important

So what do you do?

You focus on fundamental skill development in every practice, so they start to improve those skills.

But you work to do so in such a way that the kids enjoy their skill development. You set up drills, so they feel success in incremental steps. You offer a variety of ways to work on the skills they need to be successful in games.

You also focus on baby steps—small improvements in their skill levels—instead of the scoreboard.

Stop focusing on winning games. Focus on growth. Focus on improvement. Focus on the things they have control over—effort, attitude, and being great teammates to one another.

Yes, you will still have kids who struggle to focus on those things and who only focus on the scoreboard. There will be other kids in school, parents, and community members who will only focus on the scoreboard, too.

You must work to drown those people out by constantly preaching the power of individual improvement and development and commitment to team and each other as being “what we’re all about.”

Heck, even those of you who are having scoreboard success should be focusing more on improvement, development, and team. Those are things that are completely in your/their control; the scoreboard is not.

In fact, those of you who are having scoreboard success, be very careful.

I have seen players and teams without strong fundamental skills win games because they happened to play against teams with less talent than they had. I have seen coaches fall into the warped notion that everything was fine, that these players didn’t need to work on their fundamentals.

These players and coaches developed a false sense of security with their own abilities, and they stopped working on fundamental skills and techniques. Or they worked on their skills, but worked on them in a sloppy fashion, so they created bad habits and skills, thereby hurting their chances for future success.

As they got older and started facing teams with good skills, they couldn’t compete with them. Their own skill levels were so far behind the good teams that the little bit of talent that they had did them little to no good.

No matter what kind of success you are having, don’t ever stop preaching about the importance of focusing on skill development and improvement over focusing on the scoreboard!

 Start Early

You also need to start getting these messages about the importance of skill development to the kids in your community at younger ages.

Find ways to attract younger kids to your sport. Create an enjoyable atmosphere for them to learn how to play.

First and foremost, work to instill in them a love of the game.

Don’t overload them with too much skill development stuff when they are young (Kindergarten through 3rd grade). Just help them learn to love playing.

Once they have that love and passion for the game, start to show them how to get really good by teaching them the fundamental skills they will need. Make sure they can have some success within the scope of the drills and playing that you do.

Kids play sports because it is fun for them to do so. They have more fun when they are good at the sport. So help them experience the joy of the sport by getting better at it.

This is also when you can start to instill in them the idea that there is a difference between playing their sport and working their sport. When they start to enjoy working at their sport, that is when the magic will start to happen. Their growth and development will explode!

But again, you cannot focus on this concept until they have that burning passion and love of the game, or you will turn them off. If you focus on the work too early, the only burning that will happen is they will burn out.

Once they have that passion, though, if they put enough time in, no matter how old they are, they will get better.

So stay positive, Coach.

It’s not easy going through difficult seasons like we are going through in my community with many of our sports at a variety of levels.

But if we will focus on helping kids develop themselves individually to be the best versions of themselves, eventually, it will turn around.

It will for you, too.

Stay the course, and stay focused on teaching and developing fundamental skills for your athletes.

They need that from you to become the best that they can be.